By Anastasia Dyakovskaya
When you are the diva, you have to be the best always.
– Nellie Melba, from her autobiography Melodies and Memories.
Today when we think diva some of us may conjure images of Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez. Others may have Cher or Aretha Franklin come to mind. Regardless of who’s in fashion these days, it’s important to remember who started it all. And that was Nellie Melba. If anyone can teach us how to truly be a diva, it’s her.
Don’t Let Your Anything – or Anybody – Stand in Your Way
It wasn’t easy for a woman at the end of the 19th century to reach the kind of fame that Melba did. Although she came from a musical family, they were less than thrilled with her dreams of being an opera singer known throughout the world. So, like any diva, she left them in their provincial town of Lilydale (now a suburb of Melbourne).
Follow Your Heart
At first, she didn’t make it very far. At the age of 21 she married and moved to Queensland, where she gave birth to a son. But family life just wasn’t for her, and her love for music went unfulfilled in her rural surroundings. Two months after having her baby she picked up and left, intent on pursuing her career.
Make Sure You’ve Got Talent and Drive
Melba’s first stop was London, where she initially received no recognition. She then tried Paris, where she went to her first live opera and begun lessons under Madame Mathilde Marchesi. In 1887 – roughly five years after her departure – she finally made her debut in Brussels, with the role of Gilda in Rigoletto.
Take Over the World
Thus began Melba’s ascent to worldwide celebrity. A year after her performance in Brussels she debuted at London’s Covent Garden, where she would remain a returning star until her last show in 1926. She was also a regular at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, perhaps the key to her divadom.
Be the Best
Just as much as her fans adored her, she was hated and envied many of her colleagues. To be a diva like Melba, you’ve got to be competitive and always put yourself first, and that’s exactly what she did – even if it meant upstaging the other performers, or even (literally) pushing them away to bask in a solitary bow.
Remember All the Little People
Although she was ruthless with her colleagues, her devotees loved her for good reason. Apart from her awe-inspiring voice and presence, Melba had a kind heart as well. At the end of her final show at Covent Garden she tearfully thanked even the stagehands. She also took the time to tour the Australian countryside, stopping in small villages where people came to hear her voice even if they had to stand under the floorboards.
Leave a Legacy
You know you’re a diva when there’s a dessert named after you. The French chef Auguste Escoffier was so taken by her performance that he dreamed up the concoction – the Peach Melba – in her honor. Melba toast is also named for her, and was invented by the same chef. Melba herself left Australia with the Melba Conservatorium of Music in Richmond, for future generations of singers and musicians.
There you have it. A mix of ambition, ability, heart, perseverance, and of course, some sass, is (almost) all you need to be a diva. Go get it, girl!